Parched Corn and Rye Coffee: Eating as a Civil War Soldier

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[Photograph: Library of Congress]

I spent the better part of February covered in cornmeal and rye dust. My food supply was limited to mostly non-perishables. Whatever wasn't provided, I had to locate on the sly. All the meat was spoiled, and a lot of the milk and butter, too. My world revolved around grains. In February, I emulated a Civil War soldier at camp.

I should clarify: I wasn't actually stuck on a battlefield, crowded around a campfire, and dining on questionable meat. I was in my modern kitchen, with modern conveniences, working on a cookbook. My goal? To reformat camp recipes for today's cooks so everyone can access the now 150-year-old meals. I knew a lot about the Civil War lifestyle going in, but this project unearthed a whole new aspect of the 1860s and the tortures soldiers endured—all at the hands of food.

The Rations

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Cornfed cake. [Photo: Janelle Rominski]

Soldiers from both the North and South suffered from shoddy government-issued ration packs. These allotments were decidedly meager, usually with a bread ration (in the form of flour or ridiculously hard crackers that needed to be soaked in water to become edible), an often-putrid tiny share of beef that only appeared occasionally, plus salt pork, and coffee and dried vegetables when (and if) they were available. It was in no way enough food to live off of and frequently resulted in diseases like scurvy and widespread diarrhea. And according to Peter Carmichael, Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, it got worse. The meat in the ration on both sides decreased throughout the war and was quite difficult to obtain.

"As an expression of political protest, a soldier in an Alabama unit took his newly-reduced meat ration, packaged it, addressed it to Robert E. Lee, and sent it to headquarters," he says. "Lee opened up the package and there was the putrid, very small meat ration that all the enlisted men were receiving. The soldier wanted to impress upon General Lee, 'look, this is what you're subjecting us to.'"

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Panola. [Photo: Janelle Rominski]

The recipes in my upcoming cookbook reflect the limited amount of nutritious food the soldiers had to work with, even if they supplemented their rations by raiding local farms. Only four ingredients really stand out as common in the records: cornmeal, used to make "cornfed cake" or cornbread, which would come in the ration packs; regular dry corn, which tended to be stolen from local fields and was used to make panola (parched corn ground to a fine powder, seasoned with salt or sugar and eaten dry); eggs, which could be used as a substitute for cream in coffee and came from the same farms as the corn; and butter, which usually arrived in packages from family.

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Rye coffee. [Photo: Janelle Rominski]

Carmichael says that food also became a way of communicating across enemy lines. Whenever a creek or river ran between the two forces, the soldiers would call uneasy truces. They would meet and trade region-specific foodstuffs like bacon from the north for tobacco from the south, even though each side harbored a serious resentment for the other. Coffee was a big seller. The Confederates had a hard time getting it because of a Union blockade, so they would make ersatz coffee out of whatever they could forage—like rye, which they would dry, toast, grind, and then brew in a coffeepot over a fire to make a lighter and less-potent brew. James McPherson, a Civil War historian and professor emeritus at Princeton University, says soldiers had to get even more creative than that, often making the drink from peanuts or okra, too. And desperate times call for desperate measures. When soldiers had free time, they would hunt for peculiar game to have at least some meat. According to McPherson, "they weren't above eating squirrels or raccoons, or whatever they could shoot in the way of game."

Division of Labor

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[Photograph: Library of Congress]

One of my luxuries preparing for the cookbook was use of a modern kitchen. Civil War soldiers were not so lucky. They had to carry on their backs whatever they needed. Frying pans, coffee pots, the rations: everything had to fit into the soldiers' rucksacks. A solution came in the form of a "mess." Soldiers would form themselves into small groups of four to eight men (their messmates) and distribute the weight of both the food and tools. The messes shared all their food—rations, packages from home, stolen and purchased items—and assigned roles to each mess member. One would be on dish duty and one would cook. The chef was often rewarded, according to McPherson, by not having to carry as much as the other men—but he did have to toil over the hot campfire to create every meal.

The Treats

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A sutler's tent. [Photograph: Library of Congress]

Sometimes, an opportunity for indulgence arose. Local market owners known as sutlers would set up shop near the soldiers' camps to sell fancier or fresher food items, sometimes including condensed milk and lobsters. Even buttermilk was sometimes available, which was used in sweet potato puddings or custards.

But luxury came at an inflated price. Savvy businessmen saw their chance and raised prices to levels that were sometimes unreachable for the average armyman. It became so bad that, according to Carmichael, the soldiers rioted in 1863. They descended on a group of sutlers on Christmas Eve and confiscated whatever they wanted to enhance their paltry diet.

Perhaps the easiest way soldiers got special food during the war—and the way they most enjoyed—was through packages mailed from home.

"On both sides, the homefront played a crucial role in supplementing the diet," Carmichael says. "Soldiers' letters focused on food. Getting food from home was a very tangible reminder of the strong emotional connections they had for family. You'll see, on both sides, soldiers getting packages filled with a variety of what they would consider to be delicacies. It might be coffee, it might be molasses, it might be whiskey, it might be fruit. And that was crucial for sustaining them physically but it also brought the home and kitchen into camp."

But that brief feeling of love and togetherness with one's family was often supplanted by the scent of rotting food. McPherson notes that although families would send items like butter or fruit, the food would often go rancid before it even reached the soldiers. It was a long way for delivery in the pre-refrigeration era. The soldiers often longed for these items as a way to alleviate homesickness, which, a lot of times, was never ultimately resolved—like in the sad case of William Wagner.

According to Carmichael, after the Battle of Gettysburg when the army was suffering from large-scale dissent and desertion, Wagner wrote home that he was desperate to return to North Carolina. He feared he would be executed if he tried to leave. So to calm the pain of missing his family, he spoke of fruit and a pastime they enjoyed together. As the postscript to his letter, he wrote: "If I could only be home to eat peaches with you."

Wagner never made it home to his family and those peaches. He was captured three months later, held in a prison called Point Lookout, and died from dietary-induced diarrhea. His body was buried in a pit in Maryland.

Food Begets Tragedy

Wagner wasn't the only soldier who suffered from dangerous levels of hunger, whether captured or not. In another stunning example of war food as a catalyst for major tragedy, the Confederate Army can blame a lost battle almost entirely on fish.

"The April 1st, 1865, Battle of Five Forks outside Petersburg, Virginia, was probably the most well-known food incident in the war," Carmichael says. "Before the Union Army attack, the Confederate commander George Pickett and his subordinates were behind the lines eating shad. They considered it a delicacy. General Pickett had brought some shad that one of his subordinates got out of the river, and they were enjoying a fish fry and probably whiskey. And as they're enjoying their shadbake, General Pickett looks up to see that his army is being devoured by a Union attack."

The Confederates were defeated, which led to the evacuation of Richmond. It was one of the most important battles in the war, lost because the general just couldn't wait to enjoy that luxurious shad. The event is a testament to how food was both a means of survival and an executioner. Even from just the sparse ingredients comprising the recipes I had to make, it was painfully obvious how soldiers were unable to survive on camp food alone.

Of all the things I learned throughout this process, perhaps the biggest and most sobering fact was the knowledge that I could never make it through those conditions. A physician at the time calculated that the overall caloric intake for the soldiers in 1865 was literally not enough to sustain life. Carmichael says malnourishment-related illnesses were the true killer in the war. I often wonder how any modern Americans would survive under Civil War conditions. Me? Ten minutes without pancakes gives me nightmares. I think I'll stick to cookbooks.